Metro Morning

The fight is on to save Toronto's endangered languages

From Harari, spoken in eastern Ethiopia, to Bukhori, spoken by Bukharan Jews in central Asia, a Toronto organization is looking to record the city’s linguistic diversity before it’s too late.

Anastasia Riehl says Toronto is a treasure trove for rare languages, and she wants to record them all

Enas Adose at a recording session in which she will speak Harari, a language from Eastern Ethiopia. (Endangered Language Alliance Toronto)

From Harari, spoken in eastern Ethiopia, to Bukhori, spoken by Bukharan Jews in central Asia, an organization is looking to record Toronto's linguistic diversity before it's too late.

Anastasia Riehl, co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance Toronto, spoke on CBC Radio's Metro Morning about the race against time to capture and preserve the languages of small communities.

"About 6000 to 7000 languages are spoken today, and we expect about half of those will be lost in the next 100 years," she said. "Many of these languages have never been documented."

Riehl said that by working in Toronto, they have a natural advantage.

"While linguists are scrambling to get to these remote parts of the world and do documentation, we can do a number of recordings right here in Toronto," she said.

A word cloud representing non-English mother tongues in Toronto. (Endangered Language Alliance Toronto)

The Endangered Language Alliance Toronto's focus is to take as many audio and video recordings as possible, in the hope that they will be useful one day to linguists as well as to the community themselves.

Riehl is also collaborating on a documentary about the work of the organization called Saving Our Tongues.

Pressure on rare languages

Many factors put a language at risk of extinction, said Riehl.

"In some cases, due to economic reasons, there's a shift to a major regional or national language," she said.

Or, as in the case of Canada's First Nations, "there can be overt political pressure on groups to stop speaking their languages."

She said there can also be internal stigma around the mother tongue of one's own small community.

"Children feel like it's not cool, it's not productive, to speak," said Riehl. "They want to have more access to the world."

'With increasing globalization and a desire for access to technology and communities around the world, we’re seeing all of a sudden that these languages are starting to die out,' said Anastasia Riehl. (CBC)

When the alliance makes a recording, they often ask about the person's experience immigrating to Canada, with hopes, said Riehl, of exploring "these broader themes of languages and immigration in the city."

Always on the hunt for new languages to record, Riehl said there's an open call for anyone who thinks they or a relative might speak a rare language to get in touch.

With files from Metro Morning